Officially End of Summer Dishes

Two Farewell Dishes to the Late-Summer/Early Autumn Vegetables

A few yellow summer squash are still dribbling in from my garden.   The previous post’s “vegetables-as-afterthought” approach would have us serving them sauteed.  Period.  Too bad.  Just a little extra effort could turn them into something so much more satisfying.  Check out two ideas that employ the simple power of high-quality dried herbs and an herb blend to punch up ordinary vegetables:

Yellow Squash with Tomatoes, Peppers and Oregano

  1. Beautiful End of Summer VegetablesSaute 1 medium green pepper (cut in 1/2″ squares) in good olive oil,  over medium-high heat, for 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add 2 medium-sized yellow summer squash cut in half moons and continue sauteing 4-5 more minutes, being sure to season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add 2-3 medium tomatoes, cut roughly into 1″ cubes and cook another 4-5 more minutes, until peppers and squash are cooked to taste and tomatoes are just beginning to soften and release their juices.
  4. “Crush and Sprinkle” 1-2 tsp. dried leaf oregano (the Greek version if you can find it) over the dish (as directed in previous article) and stir in.  Cook another minute to allow flavors to meld, then taste and add more salt and pepper and even a pinch of sugar if dish tastes too acidic.
  5. Serve and enjoy the lovely combination of yellow, green and red.

Yellow Squash with Arugula, Bacon and Herbes de Provence

Besides spice blends, bacon is another lazy cook’s trick for adding instant flavor to dishes.  Although it has earned a reputation as a nutritional bad boy, just one or two slices are enough to jazz up this dish.  What’s more, no additional fat is needed to sauté the vegetables.  Finally, since so little is needed, it can be affordable to use bacon from humanely-raised pigs made with nothing other than pork, spices and sugar (no nitrates or other chemicals needed for great flavor.)  Note how the yellow summer squash in this dish is paired with cool weather arugula for a stunning color combination.

  1. Fry 2 slices of lean bacon, cut in 1/2″ pieces.  When lightly crisp, remove to a plate.
  2. In the rendered fat, fry 2 medium-sized yellow summer squash cut in half moons, for about 4-5 minutes, being sure to season with salt and pepper.
  3. When squash are just beginning to brown, add 1 bunch arugula, stems removed and leaves cut roughly into 1-2″ pieces.  Cook just long enough to wilt arugula.
  4. “Crush and Sprinkle” 1-2 tsp. Herbes de Provence over the dish (as directed in previous article) and stir in, along with cooked bacon.  Cook another minute to allow flavors to meld.  Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired.

Option:  Saute an onion diced to 1/2″ before the summer squash.

Want to know more about how to saute vegetables flavorfully, what it means to “wilt” arugula, how to make foods sing with spices and, most importantly, how to make meals healthfully but also deliciously and quickly?  Join us for a Whole Kitchen cooking class:  hands on cooking instruction + a whole lot more.

Spice Blends: The Lazy Person’s Way to Fast and Flavorful Veggies

Poor vegetables.  If they’re allowed on the plate at all, it’s rarely in a starring role.  More often than not, they’re just an afterthought.   As one Whole Kitchen participant put it, “After spending time on the entree, I end up just steaming  a vegetable real quick and call that good.”

Spice blends are the lazy (or just busy and harried) cook’s answer to bland veggies.  Who doesn’t have time to sprinkle a little spice over some cookedvegetables?  No one.  So there’s no excuse for having an unappetizing blob of vegetables taking up the real estate on your dinner plate.

Herbs and Spices

For best flavor, get the freshest herb and spice blends, like these purchased from a spice shop. And be sure to store them in airtight containers, like these from Tupperware.

I’ve always created custom spice combinations for my vegetable sides, and even wrote a series on how to become an herb and spice adventurer.  Recently I discovered an equally fun (and much less intimidating) approach in premixed spice blends.

In preparing for a Whole Kitchen class on chicken salads, I visited Savory Spice Shop, where Dan Haywood suggested I try Herbes de Provence, a classic French spice blend, as well as Tarragon Shallot Citrus Seasoning, a house blend.  I tested the two blends on and in everything from lamb chops, quiches and green beans to chicken and tuna salad.  The results: instant and delightful pizazz for less than a latte.  Check out this economical and easy kitchen trick:

The Blends:

  • The expert balance of flavors in Herbes de Provence is  a sure bet for a wide array of dishes.  As a timeless classic, it  can be found anywhere herbs and spices are sold, from the bulk section of Vitamin Cottage to the herbs and spice section of a regular grocery store.  If buying in bulk, half an ounce will easily last a month or two.
  • The Tarragon Shallot Citrus Seasoning is a custom Savory Spice Shop blend, but equally versatile and fun.   If you can’t get to a Savory location, order it on line.

Bulk Buying Best: I was always reluctant to try spice blends because the ones in a typical grocery store are fairly expensive, doubly so if I didn’t like  one and had to pitch it.  This problem is alleviated now that blends can be bought at spice stores (online or storefront), or from the bulk section of a health foods store.  You can do a taste test at the store to pre-qualify a blend.  Then you can buy just a small amount to cook with and make sure it appeals to your taste buds.  Buying in smaller amounts also means a blend will likely be used up before going bad and having to be tossed.

Watch Out: If you do choose a pre-bottled, commercial blend, read the ingredient label!  They often contain artificial flavorings, colorings and preservatives, needless additions since good spices have plenty of flavor  on their own.  One more reason to buy at a local spice store, where blends are made only with herbs and spices, what a surprise!

Crush and Sprinkle: Remember to gently rub Herbes de Provence (or any leafy dried herb) between your hands while sprinkling into a dish.  This helps release its  flavors more fully.

Did I Mention Fun? For cooks caught in a rut, the biggest problem often isn’t a lack of recipes, time or energy.  It’s an “inspiration-deficit.”  Just walking into a spice store will remedy that problem.  Wander around the flavors and blends and you’ll soon be itching to try something new.

Recipes Yellow summer squash may be bland, but it makes a perfect backdrop for pungent herbs.  Check out these two recipes, using Herbes de Provence as well as Greek Oregano (did you know there are both Mexican and Greek oreganos?)

Ready for an Adventure: Savory Spice has several locations in the Denver Metro Area, California and North Carolina.  Penzey’s Spices also has locations all over the country.  Both of these stores sell on line as does  The Spice House.  For a lot of interesting info on spices and delectable recipes, see Jane Spice.

Want to learn more abut herbs, spices and blends?  This is exactly what we do in Whole Kitchen Cooking Classes.  This week, seasonal cauliflower and carrots will be transformed from ordinary to sublime when jazzed up with two more of Dan’s suggestions: Vietnamese Sweet Lemon Curry and Vadouvan, a French curry blend.  Check out the current class flyer.

Meals with No Processed Foods: Easier Than You Think

When nutrition experts talk about eliminating processed foods, do you feel squeamishly overwhelmed?  “How in the world could I do that?” you wonder.  Actually, it might be easier (and tastier) than you think.

Case in point:  I arrived home late last Friday night, feeling certain I couldn’t pull together a no-processed food meal before starving to death.  But fortunately, I’d done the one thing that makes all things possible:  I thought ahead a little.  In this case, my thinking ahead led me to pull a package of lamb chops from the freezer.  So I had a firm toehold.  (Vegetarians would be equally prepared by keeping a package or two of tofu, tempeh or seitan on hand.)

With one part of the plate under control, I moved to the starch area.  My storage vegetable pantry was handily stocked with potatoes.  A little scrubbing, cutting and microwaving with olive oil, salt and pepper turned them into a delightful side.

While the potatoes cooked, I made a fast veggie saute, Yellow Squash with Tomatoes, Peppers and Oregano.  One of the things I love about summer squash is that it’s so easy to prep–just rinse and slice.

With the potatoes and vegetables underway, grilling (or frying) the lamb (or tofu) is all that remained and presto, we had a perfectly balanced, colorful, vegetable rich meal in 25 minutes.  Recruit a spouse or child to help and that can be sliced to 15 or 20 minutes!

You’ve probably made a lot of meals like this.  Did you know you were doing just what the experts advise?  Maybe healthy eating is easier than you think!  And maybe meat and potatoes meals aren’t the bad guys we thought, as long as the meat is moderately portioned, lean and clean and accompanied by a generous helping of vegetables.

Another Easy Step Toward the Tree:  Whole Grains Instead of Half Grains

Another super easy step closer to the Tree:  Eating 100% whole grain breads, pastas, tortillas, muffins, etc.  It doesn’t take any extra time at all–just make a straight substitution of whole for half grains (unless you’re baking, when more adjustments are necessary.)  Never heard the term “half grains?”  Well that’s what white, refined grain products really are:  the starchy, calorie-dense half of the grain stripped of its nutrient-rich half.  Don’t waste your money there!  Buy the whole, nutritious thing and just make a straight substitution.  Simple.

Processed Foods: Is It Ever OK to Break the Rules?

Yesterday’s post introduced the “Tree to Test Tube Continuum” to help understand just what “processed foods” are.  The Continuum makes it easy to see the difference between those foods on the tree end (which we want to focus on) and those on the test tube end (which are best to avoid.)   The trickier part of the continuum lies in the middle zone, where green merges into gray.  Is it OK to eat  anywhere in this zone?

Here’s the approach I take:  Eat as close to the tree as possible, given my time constraints.  Taking advantage of the convenience of minimally processed foods on the Tree end of the Continuum is far less worrisome to me than rigidly adhering to a no-processed-food-prohibition to the point where I’m exhausted and turn to Test Tube foods out of desperation.

No doubt the time dimension has been lurking in the back of your brain, too, since it is very much a part of the processed food inquiry.  In fact, you could safely say our perceived lack of time is a primary driver behind the entire industry.  The more time constrained we feel, the more we are drawn to the convenience of processed foods, as shown below:

 

The Tree and Time Continuum for Processed Foods

Access to real foods, cooking confidence and inspiration, and funds availability also factor importantly in our processed foods decisions.

 

Putting the Tree and Time Continuum side by side helps illustrate how I deal with the mid-zone.  When pressed for time, I break the rules and use foods from further down the continuum, but only to the extent necessary and only from the light gray section up.

  • Dinner, for instance, is our most important meal, so I give it the most time, attention and energy and use foods within 2 steps of the tree:  Vegetables cooked or raw; brown rice rather than white; meat, beans and eggs cooked as necessary; nuts and cheeses; and flavorings made from scratch:  lemons, limes, herbs, spices and minimally processed soy sauce, olive oil, fish sauce, etc.
  • I have less time and inspiration for breakfast and lunch, so I step a little further from the tree, using some frozen foods, some leftover foods and some ready-made soups and sauces.  BUT, I use frozen foods that contain only vegetables, fruit or meat (no Methocel-rich sauces!)  and ready-made soups and sauces containing only ingredients close to the tree that I would combine myself.
  • I keep snacks to a minimum by eating three solid meals a day.  To the extent I want something between meals, it’s usually a bit of a leftover meal, some nuts, fruit, a piece of whole grain toast, etc.
  • For desserts, I eat unsweetened chocolate (definitely processed but pure) plus dried fruit or freshly ground peanut butter (2-3 steps from the tree)
  • In my tea, I have soy milk (definitely processed, but a treat for a non-dairy person) and honey from the tree and some bees.

The Bottom Line

Since a majority of the foods in our diet are processed to some extent, it would be difficult (not to mention dull) to survive without any processed foods, absent a lot of time and cooking know-how.  So consider a more realistic objective:

  1. instead of dropping all processed foods all at once,
  2. begin transitioning to foods that are as close to the tree as possible, given your time, know-how, energy and inspiration
  3. but with the all important understanding that all these factors (time, know-how, energy and inspiration) are changeable.  It IS possible to gain more time by changing grocery shopping habits and locations, increase know how by learning more about whole and natural cooking, get a jolt of inspiration  by treasure hunting for a new ingredient or flavor and take advantage of dozens of other KitchenSmart Strategies(R) that allow for a gradual shifting closer and closer to Tree Land.

Ever wonder what a no-processed-foods-meal looks like?  They may be easier than you think!  Check out the next post for an easy example.

Don’t stay mired in Test Tube Land any longer than you must!  Whole Kitchen Cooking Classes are designed to make you feel comfortable and confident cooking whole and natural foods–and the more we feel confident about having the time and ability to make meals that interest us, the more we can take advantage of wholesome foods closer to the Tree.  Check out the current class schedule.

Processed Foods: The Good, the Bad and When to Break the Rules

If there’s a reliable dietary culprit, “processed food” would be it.  Whether the concern is excess fat, high sodium, too many transfats, sugar overdosing or cancer-causing chemicals, processed foods are high on the list of primary perpetrators.  It’s not a stretch to think a majority of our diet-related issues could be solved or significalntly alleviated just by eliminating these foods.  But first things first:  Exactly what is a “processed food?”

Defining “Processed Foods”

The term “processed food” is actually fairly innocent.  Truth be told, much of our food is processed, i.e., subjected to some kind of “process” to make it fit for human consumption.  For those on the wholesome eating quest, the critical inquiry is not so much whether, but what and how much processing is done to a food.  For this inquiry,  I find the “Tree to Test Tube Continuum” to be a more helpful tool than an either/or definition.

  • The Tree to Test Tube ContinuumOn the completely unprocessed, “Tree” end of the continuum are things like apples, oranges, nuts, celery, carrots and other things eaten “straight from the tree,” so to speak.
  • A little farther from the tree are things that must be minimally processed so humans can eat them at all:  meats, beans and grains must be cooked, inedible barley husks must be polished off, olives must be crushed for oil, etc.
  • Since most of us like a little flavor in our foods, it’s not uncommon to step a little farther and add things like soy sauce, vinegar, chili paste, wine, fish sauce and miso.
  • And sometimes we like things in the winter, when not available in our locale, so we take advantage of frozen and canned peppers, meat, fish, artichoke hearts, pickles, roasted peppers, corn and fruit.
  • Sometimes we are short on time, so we take advantage of multi-ingredient sauces, soups and even entire dishes made by somebody else.  Or we’d like something comforting like pasta, bread, tortillas, bagels and so on.
  • Or we may be really pressed for time and so drop by a fast food joint, pick up a pizza, get some Chinese take out, opt for Hamburger Helper, etc.
  • At times we get a slump in the afternoon and head for the vending machine for giant oatmeal cookie, a diet soda, some mini-doughnuts, or peanut butter crackers, at which point, we are solidly in Test Tube Land.

Must All Processed Foods Be Eliminated for a Healthful Diet?

While it would of course be ideal to eat within a step or two of the Tree, when experts talk about “eliminating processed foods” they are most concerned about those in the  bottom gray zones, and it isn’t hard to see why.  Processed foods in the top half of the continuum are processed minimally and simply, often just enough to make a food safely edible for the human digestive tract.  There is very little, if any loss of nutrients and almost no chemical alteration.   Foods in the lower half of the continuum, on the other hand, are more akin to manufactured products like crayons, tennis balls and sponges except that they are manufactured with food-grade materials, like:

  • Grains that are stripped of their nutrient layers to create fluffy white filler material (then, ironically,  artificially manufactured nutrients are added back)
  • Fluffy filler material from grains that is extruded through machines to form things like pasta shapes, crinkly cereal flakes, curly chips, crackers, and so on
  • Oils that are subjected to a laboratory process where extra hydrogen molecules are injected to increase shelf lives
  • White sugar, added to almost everything, that is produced through a complex refining process that turns tough, fibrous canes into white crystals
  • Handy test tube fillers and thickeners, like Methocel, “a slippery, gooey stuff” made by grinding wood into a pulp and then washing it with chemicals to break it down.  Initially used as a thickener for tile putty and drywall mud, you can now find it in everything from frozen pot pies to salad dressings.
  • Countless test-tube flavors to make food products taste appealing (and scientists are now creating ever more powerful flavors because our taste buds have become numb to what’s currently on the market.)

This much is clear:  Our bodies were designed to run on real food, not factory-made substances, just like cars are designed to run on gasoline not turpentine.  Feed our bodies the wrong fuel and break downs (along with increasingly expensive repairs) are a certain result.  Hence the sound and obvious advice to steer clear of the Test Tube end of the continuum.

Things get trickier, however, when it comes to foods in the middle of the continuum, where green merges into gray.  Is it OK to eat  anywhere in this zone?  That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post, “When Is It OK to Break the Rules?

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